Tuesday, April 17, 2007

"Mending Wall"

Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
'Stay where you are until our backs are turned!'
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, 'Good fences make good neighbors'.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
'Why do they make good neighbors? Isn't it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.' I could say 'Elves' to him,
But it's not elves exactly, and I'd rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me~
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father's saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, "Good fences make good neighbors."

Robert Frost
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I came across this poem when I was doing my "agony aunty for the English language" bit for the Star's Mind our English page some years ago. A reader wanted to know where the expression good fences make good neighbours (which is always trotted out as a truism!) had come from. I googled and found Frost's poem and enjoyed it greatly. (Perhaps the phrase is older though?)

The poem tells a story of two farmers surveying the wall between their land when the Spring comes, and making repairs. It is a drystone wall, so called because the stones are simply piled on one another without mortar to glue them together. Walls built in this way are common all over the British Isles, the choice of stone and design of the wall differing from region to region. (Frost was American but wrote his best poetry while living in England.)

The speaker in the poem isn't terribly bothered if the stones are scattered on the ground and feels they do not need the wall. The neighbour though is adamant and stubbornly repeats his father's aphorism:
Good fences make good neighbours.
But why, the speaker teases, it isn't as if we had cows. The farmers only have trees and they are hardly going to walk across the boundary!
Something there is that does not love a wall ...
The speaker repeats. The phrase argues directly with his neighbour's saying about good fences.

It seems to be in the natural order of things for the stones to fall apart: the winter ice has done its work, and hunters looking for rabbits have disturbed the stones perhaps (he wants to joke) even the elves have had a go at it.

But what exactly is that "something"?
... it's not elves exactly, and I'd rather
He said it for himself.
The farmer never does. He cannot go beyond his father's words, entertain a different way of seeing the world.

Frost doesn't spell that "something" out for us, but clearly the poem is about a great deal more than two farmers and a drystone wall. It's about how people build up social barriers between them, that prevent real communication and friendship. It's a big theme carried most effectively by this playful and conversational poem.

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7 Comments:

Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Nice poem to share... and a good poem for aspiring poets to think about too, of how Frost's quiet, understated lines can speak and mean so much.

In an ideal world, we wouldn't really need walls to separate one another, where tacit acknowledgment of each other's line and personal space is enough. It would be something like the villages and kampungs of old. These days in Malaysia, people have walls to keep out robbers and thieves.

Interestingly, I read a paper by a friend some years back on how the rise of gated communities in some South American countries both create and reinforce class differences and distinctions, from the have-nots who live on the street, and those who-have.

Ideal communities do not exist, for various reasons. Alas, I am an idiot and a dreamer, who doesn't live in the 'real' world, but an imaginary one.

5:14 PM, April 23, 2007  
Blogger enar arshad said...

then there are those invisible walls around us.....

10:20 PM, April 23, 2007  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Haha, yea... metaphorical 'spaces'. But, it's nice how blogs help 'connect' us.

Cheers, enar

12:02 PM, April 25, 2007  
Blogger enar arshad said...

yup..suddenly the distance doesnt matter, or wherever we are

cheers to you too.

10:19 PM, April 25, 2007  
Blogger dylan said...

"Something there is that does not love a fence ..."

Doesn't quite have the same ring to it, does it. Maybe that's why Frost didn't put that line in the poem.

3:21 AM, January 25, 2008  
Blogger Madcap Machinist said...

Good spot dylan. Fixed now. Thanks!

7:27 AM, January 25, 2008  
Blogger Elspeth Presley said...

There's a really interesting paradox at the heart of this poem, that I love. The neighbours only meet once a year, and what brings them together (the building of a wall) is also what divides them.

I interpreted it as saying that walls were unnatural, since nature (in the form of frost) destroys the wall. And to me, this is the thing that 'doesn't love a wall. That wants it down.' It's a good poem. And this is a great blog, keep it up!

7:22 AM, March 28, 2008  

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